When you hear the words ‘noise pollution’ what springs to mind? Is it the sound of jets flying overhead, police sirens, or a hair metal band from the 80’s? Noise is defined as unwanted or unpleasant sound. Although some annoying sounds may be rather quiet, the ones that bother us most seem to be the loud ones. Although most of us probably don’t realize it, noises—the loud ones in particular—affect our health.
It doesn’t normally spring to mind as a disease causer, but noise can actually produce a host of adverse effects on physical health and overall psychological well-being. Many aspects of our lives are affected including our sleep, concentration, communication, and recreation.
An article published in the Southern Medical Journal actually compared ‘second-hand noise’ to second-hand smoke. They expounded on this comparison stating: “Second-hand noise is an unwanted airborne pollutant produced by others; it is imposed on us without our consent, often against our wills, and at times, places, and volumes over which we have no control.”
So how exactly can noise harm us? The World Health Organization took the time to classify the adverse health effects of noise pollution into seven categories:
- Hearing Impairment
- Interference with Spoken Communication
- Sleep Disturbances
- Cardiovascular Disturbances
- Disturbances in Mental Health
- Impaired Task Performance
- Negative Social Behavior and Annoyance Reactions
The first couple of effects may seem obvious, but others (such as effects to the cardiovascular system) may come as more of a shock. Let’s take a closer look at why these things occur and what we can do about it.
Noise and Your Heart
There are several recent studies (including one conducted by the Harvard and Boston Schools of Public Health) that have linked exposure to aircraft noise to an increased risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. So how does noise affect the heart?
In a nutshell, noise is often interpreted as danger signals by our brains. These signals provoke a stress response in the body, which releases a number of hormones. These hormones are responsible for spiking blood pressure, increasing heart rate, and even depressing the immune system. Over time, these stress responses have an impact on the cardiovascular system. Lack of sleep and annoyance caused by noise can also raise stress levels, another risk factor for heart disease.
Even if someone is not consciously ‘bothered’ by noise, or has learned to ‘tune it out’, the noise continues to affect them. For example, while we sleep, we still ‘hear’ noises; the sounds are simply processed subconsciously. Even if we don’t wake up, our bodies react and release stress hormones.
Take a minute and listen… you’ll probably hear many sounds that you’ve trained yourself to ignore. These are the sounds that may be harming your body.
Noise and Diabetes
One of the less publicized effects of noise may actually be its connection with diabetes. Danish researchers conducted a large study on the long-term effects of road traffic noise. They found that noise from busy roads and highways increased the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Specifically, they found an 8-11% increased risk for every 10-decibel increase of road noise. The researchers believe noise may influence the development of diabetes because it interrupts sleep (or prevents people from reaching deep sleep cycles) or by increasing stress due to annoyance.
Noise and Children
One area that has been studied more in depth is the various effects of noise on children. Children are one group particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of noise pollution. It is theorized that they have yet to develop adequate coping mechanisms to deal with the noise disturbances. For example, studies have shown that children who live in noisy homes are more likely to have reduced cognitive and language development. Noise is also known to affect children’s learning, reading, problem solving, motivation, school performance, and social and emotional development.
There are also concerns about the psychological effects of noise exposure. Noise derived annoyance and stress contribute to many other issues such as mood changes, decreases in performance, lack of concentration, argumentativeness, nervousness, nausea, headache. Researchers noted that the elderly, children, and those not familiar with the spoken language are particularly affected.
While noise is not believed to be responsible for mental health issues, it is assumed to accelerate and intensify the development of latent mental disorders. Noise may cause or contribute to neurosis, hysteria, and psychosis.
As you can see, noise pollution is a big issue—perhaps bigger than you previously realized. While there is no perfect solution to the problem, there are many steps we can take to reducing noise in our lives and better protect our health. Be sure to check out our next article: Reducing Noise Pollution.
References: Goines, Lisa, and Louis Hagler. “Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague.” Southern Medical Journal vol. 100: Mar. 2007, pgs 287–294.  Ibid.  Grush, Loren. “Exposure to Aircraft Noise May Increase Risk of Hospitalization for Heart Problems.” Text.Article. FoxNews.com, October 9, 2013. http://www.foxnews.com/health/2013/10/09/exposure-to-aircraft-noise-may-increase-risk-hospitalization-for-heart-problems/  “Long-Term Exposure to Road Traffic Noise and Incident Diabetes: A Cohort Study.” Environmental Health Perspectives 121, no. 2 (December 10, 2012): 217–222. doi:10.1289/ehp.1205503.  Goines, Lisa, and Louis Hagler. “Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague.” Southern Medical Journal vol. 100: Mar. 2007, pgs 287–294.  Ibid.